Page 13 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 14

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GREAT JEWISH BOOKS: OLD AND NEW*
By
L
eon
R
oth
A
S I pondered the theme set to me for this evening’s discourse,
l there came to my mind two sayings from two English authors
of recent times. The first was that of Mr. E. M. Forster, who
remarks somewhere: “Books have to be read (worse luck, for it
takes a long time); it is the only way of discovering what they
contain.” That seems to me to cover most of what needs to be
said under the heading of
one
word in our theme, the word Books.
The second was that of G. K. Chesterton, who is reported to have
said: “The
Iliad
is great because all life is a battle, the
Odyssey
because all life is a journey, the
Book of Job
because all life is a
riddle.” That seems to dispose of the word Great: a ‘great’ book
is a book which stirs us by its treatment of a prominent and persist-
ent aspect of experience. I t rather looks as though all there is left
for me to do is to settle the word Jewish.
I wish I could but, alas, I can’t. I used to think I knew what
Jewish meant but now I am not sure. You all know much more
about it, and much better about it, than I; and if I were honest
I should ask for our positions to be reversed — I should go down
there and all of you would come up here. I t did occur to me to
suggest that to the Chairman, but I saw that the procedure, how-
ever enjoyable for both parties, might lead to some confusion. And
so I had to set to work myself. The problem was, how?
I had to start somewhere, so I took the first publishers’ list I
could lay my hands on of the Great Books of world literature and
asked myself which of them were written by Jews. The list hap-
pened to be that of the 990 volumes of the well-known and justly
admired Everyman’s Library. On search I found the following:
Ancient Hebrew Literature
(the Old Testament and Apocrypha);
the
New Testament;
and then, in alphabetical order of authors,
Disraeli’s
Coningsby
, Heine’s
Prose and Poetry
, Josephus’
Wars of
the Jews
, Marx’s
Capital
, and Spinoza’s
Ethics.
Tha t’s a fairly
mixed bag but it’s hardly comprehensive; and it’s not all what is
commonly known as Jewish.
So I started again. I saw that I had used the wrong criterion:
* This lecture, delivered at a 1955 Jewish Book Week celebration in London, was
published by the Jewish Book Council of England and is reprinted with permission.
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